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Winner of Conservative leadership race set to be revealed tonight

Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates Erin O'Toole, left to right, Peter MacKay, Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis wait for the start of the French Leadership Debate in Toronto on June 17, 2020.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
August 23, 2020 - 2:30 PM

OTTAWA - Sixteen thousand, nine hundred and one: that's the magic number that all four Conservative leadership candidates are aiming for tonight in order to win the race.

The party elects a new leader using a points system — each of the 338 federal ridings is allocated 100 points, and the winner must secure a majority.

With a ranked ballot, how long it will take to achieve that Sunday night is anyone's guess.

At least 175,000 party members cast their vote in the contest, and in the waning hours before Friday's deadline to vote, campaigns were racing to hand-deliver as many ballots as they could as every point matters.

Ahead of the winner's reveal Sunday, candidate Peter MacKay's campaign manager Alex Nuttall said they expect multiple rounds of counting — and some surprises.

"I think we've got the horsepower to get us across the line," he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant the party has relied entirely on a mail-ballot, and the pandemic has also meant a markedly different plan to reveal the winner.

Gone is the celebratory vibe of thousands of party members packing a massive convention centre and nets filled with blue balloons at the ready to descend when the winner is declared.

Instead, a small convention room in downtown Ottawa has been converted to a broadcast studio, where race organizers and outgoing leader Andrew Scheer will give a speech, while the four candidates are isolated in their own rooms as the results roll in. Those will be read out by prominent Tory personalities in their home provinces, beamed in via videoconference.

Whoever wins faces two major challenges right out of the gate.

One: the party is the Official Opposition in the House of Commons, and in exactly a month's time, the minority Liberal government will deliver a throne speech laying out a post-pandemic recovery plan.

The vote on the speech is a confidence motion, and the Liberals have all but dared the Tories to try and bring them down.

Two: the new leader will have to unite the party after a fractious leadership contest that was itself dramatically affected by the pandemic.

"The race was as chippy as I've seen in all my years of politics," said Jenni Byrne, a longtime Conservative who has run past federal election campaigns.

"Party unity is job one."

Four candidates are vying for the job, only the third time in its 17-year history the party has chosen a new leader.

MacKay, Leslyn Lewis, Erin O'Toole and Derek Sloan each sought over the course of the campaign to position themselves as the party's best hope going forward — not just to defeat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau but to refresh the Conservative brand in Canada.

In their respective thank-you messages to supporters posted over the weekend, all said they believe a bright future for the party lies ahead.

"I will come out of this contest proud of our party, hopeful for the future, and confident that conservative values, ideals, principles and beliefs are a force for positive, constructive change in our country," MacKay said in a video on social media.

Should MacKay or Lewis win, they would face a third challenge: neither has a seat in the Commons, and they would need to appoint a leader there whose job it will be to respond to the throne speech.

O'Toole, a current MP whose campaign took pointed attacks at MacKay even in the final days, said no matter who wins, they will have his support.

"We are a family. And this leadership was just a very long Thanksgiving dinner," he wrote in an email to supporters Friday night.

"On Sunday night, we unite. On Sunday night, four teams become one. The Liberals won't stand a chance."

Lewis, the Toronto lawyer and relative political neophyte, ended her campaign with nearly $2 million in donations. Considering many told her she'd never even make the $300,000 entry fee, the donations send a message, she said.

"We have shocked the pundits — many in our own party — and Canadians right across the country who had forgotten what happens when you give the grassroots a real voice," she said.

The fundraising totals — MacKay at over $3 million, O'Toole over $2 million as well and Sloan at around $900,000 — came even as the candidates campaigned during a period of mass upheaval in the country.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the delay of the race itself; the vote was originally scheduled for June but punted as efforts to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus shut down the country.

While for a time, the candidates themselves were asked not to actively campaign, they were let loose again on the party membership in the spring, but forced into an entirely new way of campainging.

Rather than hundreds of in-person meet-and-greets with party members, the campaigns for a time went entirely virtual. Rubber chicken dinners were replaced with Zoom calls, pancake breakfasts with teletownhalls.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 23, 2020.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2020
The Canadian Press

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